Future bleak for approval of new charter schools in the District of Columbia

Last Monday evening the DC Public Charter School Board considered for approval five applications that they had heard new school representatives present the prior month. Board member Steve Bumbaugh commented before the vote on Capital Experience Lab PCS that “this is one of the finest applications” that he had read during his six-year tenure on the board. He went on to say that he himself had opened a charter school, so he could see the promise of what this new school could become.

So what did the members of the PCSB do following his remarks? They turned down the school in a four to three ruling.

The discussion over whether to create additional classrooms started out on a highly defensive note. Here is board chair Rick Cruz’s remarks regarding this part of the meeting’s agenda:

“As long as public charter schools have been in Washington, DC, there has been a debate about them: Many have been concerned, arguing that we have too many public charter schools and contending that they take away resources from more traditional options.    And each time this Board has considered opening new schools, many in the city worry that there is not enough need and not enough demand.

“The Board sees it differently. Yes, the number of public charter schools grew in the early years, but for the last decade the percentage of public school students attending traditional and charter schools has stayed roughly the same, with more than half attending traditional DCPS schools. And that’s because both sectors open new schools, while closing others. With charters, we have a process of regular review and oversight that allows us to close schools which are underperforming. 

“In fact, since 2014 when I joined the Board, we have opened 21 schools while closing 15. And when I say schools, I am referring to campuses not [local education agencies] LEAs.

“My basic point is that charter application approvals are but only one part of the story. One needs to look at the whole picture — from applications to oversight, from improvement to closing if necessary.

“Often the controversy around charters is framed as one of budget dollars being taken by charter schools away from the traditional neighborhood schools. That is simply not true. Public charter schools get funded per pupil. The dollars belong to them and their families. And, over my time on the Board and in the sector, we have seen real increases in funding under the leadership of Mayor Bowser. One sector does not take from the other.

“Public charter schools were created as an alternative approach to provide public education — to offer innovation, quality, and choice to families that wanted another way. In Washington, DC, we continue to work toward that goal. And our work is not done. We need to keep looking for ways – through our oversight and monitoring — to make public charter schools better. Why?  Because the students and families of this city deserve this. They deserve better.”

The tone is quite different from a statement released by the board in 2019 when D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn attempted to put pressure on the PCSB to restrict the number of new school applications given the green light to open.

“Despite concerns about ‘under-utilization’ by the DC Deputy Mayor of Education, families are choosing public charter schools for their students. This year, 59% of public charter schools had longer waitlists than they did last year, and roughly 67% of applicants on waitlists are waiting for a seat at a top-ranking public charter school. Quality matters to families. This is why we want to ensure that there are excellent options available throughout the city.”

That year five out of eleven bids to create new facilities were approved.

This year it was only one. The story of what happened to CAPX is one around fear around demand. Board member Lea Crusey remarked that the board has approved 2,000 new high school seats over the next 10 years and that of the eight pre-Kindergarten to twelfth grade charters approved to open over the last four years, only two charters have met their first year enrollment target.

It is now easy to understand why only Wildflower PCS was granted a charter. Here you have a small school with a Montessori model aimed at enrolling at-risk children. There is high demand for Montessori-based pedagogy in the city. The existing schools, both traditional and charter, that are based upon this framework are oversubscribed. Even though there is tremendous need for more Montessori schools in the city, the charter board cut the number of 60-pupil campuses proposed by Wildflower from eight to six.

When you see a high quality innovative charter like CAPX being denied and an extremely specialized school like Wildflower being approved, it means that the portfolio of charter schools in the nation’s capital is now basically fixed.

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